A PLAIN GUIDE
A Liturgical Jesus (Continued)
Jewish Christians gradually moved from the Hebrew fold into the nascent
Church. This took them into the company of Greek and Roman Christians. The
Jewish Christians brought with them a liturgical pattern of observances
which involved Sabbath and festival readings using established Jewish
themes and patterns.
Mark's Gospel, to take the earliest gospel as an instance, falls into
several major sections. The exact delineation of these sections is still
the subject of scholarly strife and will no doubt remain so. One of the
more obvious, as an example noted long before Goulder, is the division of
Mark's Passion narrative into eight three-hour sections.
But the liturgical patterns in Mark are not confined to the Passion
narrative. They appear to be all-embracing. An initial clue is obtained
from an early Markan manuscript from the early 5th century called the
Codex Alexandrinus. In this book the text of Mark is broken up into 49
numbered and titled units.
If one places Mark's account of the Passion (Mark 16) to coincide with
Easter Sunday a number of startling correlations with the Jewish calendar
become apparent. There is an almost perfect fit with Jewish liturgical
themes over 49 weeks.
For example, the book of Deuteronomy was read over twelve Sabbaths in
the Jewish cycle. This can be exactly fitted with the sections in Mark
which deal with the journey of Jesus and his disciples from Galilee to
Jerusalem. During this journey Jesus instructs his disciples about their
role in the Christian community. As Spong says,
It is marked by one teaching episode after another: on humility, on
divisions within the fellowship, on marriage and divorce, on the care and
treatment of children, on wealth"
and so on.
Again, Mark 13 is the so-called "Little Apocalypse", in which Jesus
speaks of the coming of the Messiah and the final fulfillment of God's
creation in what's commonly called "the end of the world". If one follows
the 49 divisions of the Codex Alexandrinus, this section (which
precedes the Passion lesson) falls exactly on the Jewish Sabbath when the
theme of the passing of the old and the coming of the new was dealt with.
So close is the correspondence between Mark's liturgical pattern and
the Jewish annual lectionary that one is able to predict which week
of the Jewish cycle each part of Mark applies to. Having said that, Mark's
Gospel covers only roughly two-thirds of the entire cycle.
Goulder and Spong present instance after instance of this sort of
correlation. Their conclusion is that Mark's Gospel does not fit any of
the patterns previously proposed by scholars. It is a series of lections.
The content and themes of these readings was determined by the worship
needs of the early Jewish-Christian communities.
Matthew and Luke contain the same liturgical pattern, each reworked in
their own way. Remember that both are dated later than Mark. For example,
Matthew's Gospel is longer than Mark's because, according to Spong, the
author has to compensate for the incompleteness of Mark's Gospel. He
supplies the missing material for the rest of the year.
This comprises mostly the early part of Matthew's Gospel. It covers the
missing Jewish Sabbaths from the Passover to Rosh Hashanah and the
Pentecost celebration (missing from Mark). It's worth noting that the
Codex Alexandrinus version of Matthew contains 69 units with headings
and themes (Mark has 49). The entire liturgical year and festivals are
Where Mark focuses on the Sabbaths, Matthew focuses more on the
festivals. Scholars have long noted that there are five blocks of teaching
material in Matthew. It's now apparent that these five blocks fit exactly
the five great festivals of the Jewish liturgical year.
Having established a compelling correlation, Spong and Goulder then
take a critical next step. They have shown that this Gospel-liturgy is a
re-working of Old Testament patterns. It is an output of the Midrash
process. As a restatement of Old Testament themes it is not meant to be
taken literally. So it is not history and, so they maintain, no amount
of analysis will reveal what really happened in the life of Jesus.
The jury is still out on this conclusion. On one hand the shock and
horror of the Christian establishments to Goulder's work can be
interpreted as a defensive, knee-jerk reaction. On the other, the "I told
you so" response of deniers of the historicity of the gospels isn't
There are two immediate problems with the outcome of this line of
It depends heavily on the conclusion that there was no "Q-source"
of either written or oral material drawn on by both Matthew and Luke
. This material was probably a good source of
pre-liturgical information and interpretation of the life and meaning of
Jesus. Matthew and Luke also used Mark's earlier liturgical pattern as a
guide. They modified it and "invented" their own individual
liturgical schemes for themselves and their situations. This would
account for the distinctive character of each gospel.
It seems to me that there is very weighty evidence for the existence
of a "Q-source". It was probably oral in origin. Linguistic similarities
and other quirks in the shared material make it highly likely that it
was used by the authors of Matthew and Luke.
If this is so, and I for one think it is, then there's every reason to
think that the authors of both gospels rearranged common material to
suit themselves. Each gospel has material unique to itself. Each author
used the Midrash method to work out their own liturgical pattern
for their own situation.
That they did this doesn't necessarily mean that there is no history
in the Q-source material they both used. Not only doesn't this follow
logically, but the bulk of the evidence goes against this conclusion.
There is little doubt in my mind that the
liturgical context of the Synoptic Gospels will gradually be accepted,
and rightly so.
But does that change anything? I don't think so. No matter how the
gospels are perceived - as myth, or lectionary, or wisdom literature, or
catechetical material, or polemics or whatever - the central question
remains: how much of their material is good history, an account of what
In other words, the end use of the gospels is only one matter
at issue. Perhaps that use was, as it were, multi-purpose - worship,
teaching and debate among them. The gospel material seems highly likely
to have been assembled in various sequences to meet liturgical purposes,
as Goulder and Spong propose.
However, then as now, liturgy had a primary underlying purpose - to
acquaint the faithful with the story of Jesus as illuminated and
informed by the precedent of the Old Testament (the Scriptures of the
Whatever the case, the historical-analytical task has not been done
away with. It is still clear: To delve deep into the gospels and
isolate from the "invented" material (assembled for varied uses) those
sections which give as good a historical picture of Jesus as possible.
The essence of being Christian is, it seems to me, that faith is ultimately
based upon a real person who actually lived, and who did and said certain
things. Christianity remains an historically-founded way of life. It isn't
just a myth. It is not just a liturgy. It is not just the vision of early
Christians. Nor is it just one religion chosen from a range of religions to
fit personal preference.
In terms of how most in the West interpret
their world, a faith based primarily upon revelation and authority seems no
longer viable. Hence the inexorable rise since the late 18th century of the
quest for a Jesus of history. We now search for historical evidence about
what really happened rather than unquestioningly accept the traditional
Jesus of faith.
That we have latterly become aware, through Goulder
and others, of a liturgical use for the written material which also
contains our history is a factor to be taken into consideration. But the
good history remains embedded in the Gospels, to be teased out and assessed
regardless of the end purpose for which they were written.
To sum up:
Analysis by Goulder and others of the three Synoptic Gospels
reveals that they were written primarily for liturgical use in the
Jewish religious year as followed by early Jewish-Christian
Mark's Gospel doesn't cover the entire year. The longer gospels of
Matthew and Luke expand to cover the full year and festivals. They are
designed to meet the needs of the communities of which their authors
The correspondence between the Synoptic Gospels and the Jewish
liturgical year uncovered by Goulder is compellingly comprehensive.
But this new insight is not yet accepted by traditional Christianity -
if it ever will be.
The case for denying the historicity of the entire contents of the
gospels is weak. Parts of all three Synoptic Gospels undoubtedly
relate back to very early oral and written sources. A slim but
adequate historical Jesus emerges from these parts.
That the three Synoptic Gospels are written to be used in the
annual religious liturgical cycle does not invalidate the quest for
the Jesus of history. A real man actually lived about whom we know
something as a matter of good history. It is upon the real man that
Christianity is based.
The "Q" Source